Governor Steve Bullock used his veto pen today to force state lawmakers to reconsider mail-in balloting in the upcoming special election, resurrecting one of the most contentious political topics of the legislative session.
A week after House Republicans kept the bill from being voted on by the full House, Governor Bullock is piggybacking mail balloting onto another piece of legislation to continue the debate.
“The language I am adding to this bill will allow counties the option of conducting the special congressional election scheduled for May 25th, by an automatic absentee mailing," Bullock says. "Meaning every registered voter will be mailed a ballot.”
Yesterday, an un-related bill to generally revise election laws landed on the Governor’s desk. Instead of signing it, Bullock attached new language to the bill, in a maneuver called an amendatory veto. It caught the bill’s sponsor, other legislators and the state’s top election official, the Secretary of State by surprise.
The Governor’s office has been considering doing this for most of this week, but the plan was kept hushed in the east wing of the Capitol building, out of the eye of press, or lawmakers who could have tried to stop the election law cleanup bill from ever reaching the governor's desk.
Soon after Bullock’s announcement, Republicans criticized the move. A statement from the Speaker of the House’s office accused the Governor of “trying to use his power to shoehorn a completely different piece of legislation into a simple cleanup bill that has already moved through the process.”
Speaker Austin Knudsen, and other Republican leadership in the House were not made available for comment.
The governor’s amendatory veto means the House must vote on whether Montana counties can run the special elections by mail. But when that happens is up to Speaker Knudsen. Knudsen criticized the original mail ballot bill as bad policy and asked its original Republican sponsor not introduce it.
Bullock’s announcement pressing lawmakers to again consider the mail ballot option comes as election officials are scrambling to prepare for the special election.
“We’re kind of torn on this amendment, on one hand, of course countries want to save money and want to run a mail ballot election," says Regina Plettenberg. "But on the other hand, time is not on our side.”
Plettenberg is the top elections administrator for Ravalli county. Plettenberg and other elections officials around the state pushed lawmakers to adopt the original mail ballot bill.
They estimate running the special election by mail could save them more than half a million dollars statewide, saving on the cost of running polling places after an expensive general election in November.
But opponents of the idea, including Montana’s Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, say removing physical polling places in an election will hurt the integrity of the election process, and cost shouldn’t be the motivator in this decision.
Montana’s Republican Party has also claimed allowing counties to run an election by mail balloting help Democrats in the election. But the original mail balloting bill was brought by a Republican, and passed the Senate, which that party controls.
The governor’s amendatory veto would give counties more time to send out mail ballots. But Regina Plettenberg with Ravalli County says counties need to know before the governor’s proposed extension at the end of this month.
“At this point, we’ve been proceeding like it was going to be a poll election, and at some point we're going to have to get ready to mail ballots and we need to know are we mailing all of them or are we mailing absentees," Plettenberg says.
It’s still unclear when, or if, the governor’s amendatory veto will be voted on by the House and Senate. That’s because Republican party leaders who were hostile to mail-in voting bill are in charge of scheduling votes on bills. Both bodies would have to approve the governor’s proposal for it to take effect.
While county election officials like Plettenberg wait for direction, they’re also waiting to hear how a lawsuit filed by the Green Party in Montana will play out, and could possibly force at least 40 countries to reprint their ballots. The Green Party is disputing not being included on the ballot because it is considered a minor party in Montana - Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians are considered major parties.
Plettenberg says she hopes to know the result of that lawsuit in the next few days.